What do Pew study results really mean? Ignoring Chabad shows outdated mentalityby rabbi tzvi nightingale
|Follow j. on||and|
Handwringing and distressed looks are widespread right now in the American Jewish world. According to a recent study concerning the state of American Jewry by the Religion and Public Life Project of the Pew Research Center, things are pretty grim.
The intermarriage rate, a bellwether statistic, has reached a high of 58 percent for all Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews — a huge change from before 1970, when only 17 percent of Jews married outside the faith. Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God, and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year. Oy.
Now while I agree there are some very disturbing issues and trends in the Jewish world regarding unaffiliated Jews — Hey, this is what I do for a living! — I find this study somewhat skewed and almost worthless. Why? Because they left out Chabad.
The study found that Reform Judaism remains the largest American Jewish movement, at 35 percent. Conservative Jews are 18 percent, Orthodox 10 percent, and groups such as Reconstruc-tionist and Jewish Renewal make up 6 percent combined.
Hold on a second. I don’t see any mention of Chabad. According to the Union of Reform Judaism website, there are 875 Reform synagogues in the United States and Canada. But Rabbi Motti Seligson, director of media relations for chabad.org, said there are 959 Chabad centers in the United States alone. That is more than the so-called strongest branch of Judaism.
And this is why this study is practically meaningless. It is based on an outdated model and mentality and has totally ignored the most dynamic movement in Judaism in recent years.
Furthermore, the folks at Pew are using categories of Jews from the ’50s and ’60s that have almost wholly changed since then. To illustrate, let’s talk about my niece, now in her first year at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. She has attended Chabad for Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shabbat dinners in the short time she has been in college.
If she were approached for this survey, she wouldn’t say she is Orthodox, because she knows what that is and she isn’t there (yet). She certainly is not Reform, because she has zero affiliation with that movement. She would probably call herself Conservative given these choices, but that would be bogus because she does not go to a Conservative synagogue. However, she does attend Chabad more than most Conservative or Reform members attend their respective synagogues, and yet there is no Chabad option to check.
And then there is another point — the holy grail of membership. This is another completely meaningless factoid in defining Jewish affiliation in our day and age. Who cares if someone is a card-carrying member of a synagogue or not? There are plenty of people who come to the Orthodox outreach organization Aish regularly who are not official “members.” Yet the simple reality is that these folks are more actively Jewish than many members of synagogues who may show up once or twice a year for Kol Nidre or a relative’s bar mitzvah. But these people would be categorized as “just Jewish,” which according to this survey implies failed Jew; hardly the truth.
Don’t get me wrong, I am acutely aware that there are all kinds of challenges facing American Jewry regarding intermarriage, assimilation and the like. But we need a balanced view. And this report does not offer that: It omits Chabad in particular and the ba’al tshuvah movement in general, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews from all backgrounds are exploring their Judaism and Jewish definition of themselves in countless ways. We are far from a blip and certainly should not have been outright ignored.
So for the vast number of Jews who are on different paths in their own personal journey and who go to Chabad for Sukkot or log onto Aish.com or defend Israel through AIPAC or have made the commitment not to eat shellfish — for those Jews perhaps we need to smash some old paradigms and create a new category of Jew.
I propose that inasmuch as they are the most visible and numerous and therefore ought to get the naming rights, we should now have another category of Jew: the Chabad Jew. And just like Kleenex and Jello have morphed beyond their initial limited product names into generic terms for tissues and gelatin desserts, so too Chabad can now become the expansive term for exploring Jew. (Isn’t that ironic coming from an Aish rabbi?)
The more I think of it, the more it makes sense. Chabad is an acronym for chochmah, binah and da’at, or wisdom, understanding and knowledge. And that’s exactly what these Jews are doing — they are, each in his or her own way, trying to get a bit more wisdom, understanding and knowledge of who they are as they continue to explore how Torah, mitzvot and Judaism can bring a little bit more peace, enjoyment and meaning in their lives.
The next time someone asks what kind of Jew you are, look them in the eye and tell them, “I am Chabad, I am Aish, I am Birthright, I am March of the Living, I am JWRP … I am a Jew who is striving to get closer to God and make this world a better place.”
Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale is South Florida executive director of Aish, an Orthodox outreach organization. He is not, in fact, a Chabadnik.